In 1978, beauty queen, pop singer, and evangelical Christian Anita Bryant began America’s culture war on sexuality. Bryant used her fame to overturn an anti-discrimination ordinance in Orlando, Florida—and immediately pledged she would do the same around the country. Her threat was credible: Bryant had mobilized a national network of sympathetic figures in her successful fight, and could easily do it again. Jerry Falwell, who would become the most notorious leader of the emerging Religious Right, traveled to Florida to supported Bryant’s campaign—his first overtly political act.
Bryant might have won in Orlando, but her rhetoric mobilized an otherwise moribund gay and lesbian movement. Billy Graham saw it coming. Months after her victory, he lauded Bryant’s courage and critiqued her rhetoric in the pages of Christianity Today. Yet he also prophesied the future, telling them that he was “fearful that her campaign might galvanize and bring out into the open homosexuality throughout the country, so that homosexuals would end up in a stronger position.” Subsequent events have proved his worries right.
Over the past forty-five years, evangelicals have been locked in a zero-sum dispute with an increasingly demanding LGBT movement. The history of this struggle is contested, but I think this much can be said: evangelicals’ public rhetoric has often been marked by anxiety, fear, distrust, and anger. While we have often framed ourselves as the victims of a hostile progressive movement, we have also frequently sought to deny the realities of mistreatment and disrespect that have fueled progressive’s animus against us. No one has clean hands in this culture war, including those who would wash them publicly like Pilate once did.
At the same time, evangelical anxieties about sex and marriage came—from somewhere. The professional activist-class on the LGBT side has used the same stigmatizing weapons that were once used against them to considerable effect. It is now impossible to hold in elite circles that marriage is between a man and a woman without being marginalized as a bigot. Emboldened by their successes, the LGBT movement has expanded the scope of their demands: what began as a contest over non-discrimination protections for housing and employment is culminating in the requirement to use people’s “preferred pronouns.”
Nor can we overlook the upheavals in marriage and family life America has experienced the past fifty years. The divorce revolution in the 1960s reconfigured the American household, and weakened everyone’s commitments to the bonds of marriage. For you college students, Ellen is only a talk-show host your parents watch—but for the parents, she is an icon of America’s acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships. The internet brought the scourge of pornography into every bedroom, corroding the hearts and imaginations of a generation of men, and not a few women. The average age of marriage rose, and as sexual mores loosened it became costly for young people to be chaste while waiting to meet a spouse worth having. The development of artificial reproductive technologies broke the final remaining bonds between marriage and procreation, and will soon empower us to create human beings from not only two members of the same sex, but three, four, or more individuals of any sex.
These were real and important shifts in how Americans configure our sexual lives. We cannot romanticize America’s life before these upheavals. But for better or worse, America’s vices in the 1950s were familiar to many traditionalist Christians. They faced the old-fashioned sins of spousal abuse and adultery; we face the new-fashioned sins of date rapes, porn addiction, and the hook-up culture. The foundations of our sexual revolution were laid long before it occurred, and many evangelicals enjoyed its early returns (especially divorce) while trying to deny its more extreme implications. Yet as the cultural logic of the sexual revolution became more visible and disruptive, evangelicals found themselves woefully unprepared.
At the same time, some corners of evangelicalism responded to these shifts by emphasizing their views of sex and gender, in order to build a bulwark against the so-called ‘secular worldview’ that threatened them. In extreme cases, they adopted an explicitly reactionary posture founded on the notion that a community that fails to take a stand against a progressive outlook will soon become captivated by it.
This approach had several problems. For one, it hardened evangelicals’ own gender relations, introducing a rigid emphasis on “roles” that has left many women feeling alienated from their communities. In some cases, this anxiety lead to grave theological mistakes. Some evangelicals sought maximal protection against feminism, for instance, and so turned to the center of the Christian faith for help: the Triune God. When the sociological horse drives the theological cart, things rarely go well: they introduced a subordination into the relationship between the Son and the Father, which came nearer to an actual heresy than the orthodoxy they sought to preserve.
On other issues, evangelicals ironically assimilated the deeper logic of the secular world even as they were attempting to resist it. Evangelicals saw the divorce revolution—and subsequently focused on the family. Yet their vision extended no farther than what the bourgeois, middle-class conception of family-life required. That form of life is good in many ways, to be sure—but evangelicals’ appreciation of them eventually became distorted, and their ‘focus’ on the family soon became a full-blown idolization of it. Those who were single, divorced, or infertile found themselves on the margins of their communities. Meanwhile, young people’s imaginations for marriage and relationships were largely shaped by the same consumeristic, psychologized self-help language of their peers—as any perusal of Instagram these days will make clear.
On marriage, evangelicals claimed continuity with the Christian tradition and fidelity to Scripture. And while they were right on the surface, the substance of how evangelicals taught and argued about sexual prohibitions sometimes had little contact with either. Evangelicals could join with Saint Augustine in prohibiting same-sex sexual acts and desires. But the first iterations of evangelical arguments about sexuality were shaped by a therapeutic and medicalized framework that Augustine would never have recognized. Those presuppositions made it nearly impossible for Christians to uphold prohibitions on sexual acts while also honoring the person who undertakes them.
Beneath these struggles and anxieties lies evangelicals’ complicity in the very “worldviews” we so strenuously object to. For instance, the ‘Nashville Statement’ sought to delineate a Christian account of sex and marriage over and against secular views on such questions. Yet it was conspicuously silent about the ways evangelical churches have given safe harbor to the impulse to refashion our bodies for the sake of our own gratification, even while it denounced the secular world’s willingness to do so. Complicity undermines a movement’s confidence. On the one side, such unsteadiness generates inflated rhetoric about the truth and rightfulness of our position. At some point, vehement denunciations encased in intensifiers is a sign that a person protests too much. On the other side, a lack of confidence makes internal dissenters a grave threat to the movement. Any attempt to name evangelicalism’s demons will invariably be dismissed as offering comfort to progressives and their ideologies. Denouncing evangelicalism’s ills is a cottage industry, as it has been since Carl Henry was editor of Christianity Today. The exhaustion from such critiques is real. Yet as long as evangelicals keep making missteps, loving fraternal correction from within will remain necessary.
Even if this analysis of evangelicals and the culture wars is right, though, it is incomplete—and filling out the rest of the picture is crucial, I think, for understanding how evangelicals can move forward into the future with confidence. The story of evangelical fears and anxieties cannot be written without a complementary narrative about the rise of a nationalized LGBT movement, of the expansion of ‘pride’ iconography into America’s commercial economy, and of the expanding requirements to pay fealty to its ideologies in corporate America. If evangelicals’ anxieties distorted their teachings about sex and gender, what damage have the views they resisted done? Accusing a movement of fear without scrutinizing its sources or legitimacy can only serve to dismiss them as irrational and prejudiced. If evangelicals should not have reacted to such cultural changes as they did, what ought they have done instead?
That question takes us beyond the realm of history, into the realm of ethics. It is a question that lies beneath every history of evangelicals that has been written over the past decade. It is a question that demands we strive to see the world from the point of view of those who were making decisions at the time, to adopt toward them what Martha Nussbaum has described as an “empathetic imagination.” It is also a question that requires us to lay bare our own normative commitments about the world. Reflection on the past can only inform and instruct us in the future if we do not reduce their choices to our own categories, or their own judgments to our own frameworks.
Such a comprehensive account of the world is, I think, necessary to discern the path forward for Christians. The Christian witness on sex and marriage can sound like good news. Or rather, those who announce it can do so as though they believe it is good news. Our affirmation of God’s good creation must be encompassed by joyful levity, which persists in the face of cultural hostility and pressure. The litmus test for the Christian’s proclamation of Scripture’s teachings about marriage is whether they can maintain their sense of humor even while losing their jobs or their friends.
But the path to such confidence requires, paradoxically, looking beyond the narrow disputes about sex and rediscovering the source of our glad tidings, the life of God in Jesus Christ as mediated to us in the Holy Spirit. All idols eventually destroy those who worship them—and having idolized the family, many of evangelicalism’s children are now turning against it. Paradoxically, the Christian witness on marriage begins by looking beyond it, and discovering its fulfillment in the kingdom of God, where there is in the final analysis neither marriage nor being given in marriage. The drama of sexuality is a pivotal, central arena for the Christian life—but there are others, and the claim of the kingdom on us has no boundaries. We would do well to examine ourselves, to see whether our concentrated concern for sex has made us inattentive to other arenas. It is worth noting that the evangelical coalition has come closest to fracturing not because of sex and gender, but race.
We might speak as well about renouncing evangelicals’ complicity in the industrialization of fertility, or about our encouragement of a careerism among our young people that makes chastity prior to marriage nearly impossible, or about our need to discover the goods of maleness and femaleness primarily within the face-to-face encounter rather than the artificial externalities of “roles.” The challenges are too many to name.
Yet within those challenges lies a great chance, an opportunity, to renew the Christian witness on marriage, gender and sex from the ground up. It is given to you, the college students here tonight, to find a path through the morass of confusion and hostility into a confident, even cheerful witness on marriage and sex: it is your burden, and your responsibility. As institutions have failed in their task to direct us toward a flourishing life, the once ordinary goods of marriage have become heroic. Now is the time to for us to form communities who discern and delight in the truth of the body, and do so with a freedom and joy that permits us to welcome and empathize with those who disagree.
It will be better for you, and for us all, if by God’s grace you succeed at this task. Yet you almost certainly will not. Who among us can withstand the pressures of our age? Yet embracing the improbability of success is the great secret to finding it: you will lose nothing for trying to heroically live in chastity together, and gain much if you succeed. Whatever you do, though, the future of Christian marriage and sexuality will almost certainly look much like its past. The beauty of the Christian marriage will always be marred by the distortions and deformations of sin. But it cannot be destroyed, any more than the gates of hell can prevail against the church. For it is the miracle and mystery of grace that despite all our best efforts to renounce God’s good creation, her praise and protest against us will endure, world without end, Amen.